- The Washington Times - Monday, January 18, 2016


Transforming a man of flesh and blood — warts, moles, scars and all — into a man of cold marble enables lesser men to think they can make of him what they want. The real man disappears under the sculptor’s chisel. There are marble men all over Washington, their humanity buried under the patina of the years we cannot truly understand.

Martin Luther King will soon join them if history is a guide and we are not scrupulous with memory. The holiday that marks the day of his birth is fast becoming just another day off for the bureaucracy, joining the holidays that pretend to celebrate Washington and Lincoln in a cut-rate observance called President’s Day.

Martin Luther King deserves better, and the beginning would be a look at who the man was. He did not shade or shape his opinions and convictions to please the fashions of the moment, which is why he attracted the gratitude of men and women of goodwill everywhere, including the applause of many who once tormented him.

He was first and last a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, as he reminded me on a long-ago afternoon in his office in Manhattan, when at the conclusion of an interview I asked him if he would talk about Martin Luther King the preacher, the pastor, the evangelist — beyond the work of “the drum major for justice,” as he described himself at the Lincoln Memorial on a hot day in August 1964. He gave he a rueful smile. “I thought you boys would never ask,” he replied, and talked at length of his responsibility to minister to the soul.

This was before certain preachers and pastors abandoned their beliefs, to be hip, cool and conversant with the secular, the mundane and the trivial, before high-church bishops were pleased to flaunt their atheism and mocked those who cling to the faith of their fathers. King was not ashamed of the Christ he preached.

In one speech in East Berlin, before the wall fell and the Stasi, the secret police, had the Germans on the wrong side of the wall trapped in the silence of the frightened and the intimidated, he confronted evil boldly. “Where people break down the dividing wall of hostility which separates them from their brothers,” he told a rally of 20,000 in the Waldbuhne Amphitheater in West Berlin, “Christ achieves his ministry of reconciliation.”

The Christians in the audience understood the remark as metaphor, but they also understood it as more than metaphor. On that very day a 21-year-old man climbing the wall was shot by an East German guard.

King had been invited to West Berlin by Mayor Willy Brandt to join a memorial service for John F. Kennedy, slain the year before, and invited to preach in East Berlin by a Protestant pastor. King’s passport was collected by the American authorities to keep him from trying to climb over the wall, but such was his fame that at Checkpoint Charlie the East German guards called their superiors and then waved him in with only his credit card.

The East Berlin newspapers, on instructions from the Communist government, were warned not to mention the visit. But hours before the service the streets were jammed with hundreds of Berliners and a second service was quickly arranged at a larger arena a few blocks away.

He brought the crowds to their feet with his first words. “Dear Christian friends,” he said. “Here are God’s children on both sides of the wall, and no man-made barrier can destroy this fact. With this faith we will be able to tear out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.” In faith, people can stand up for freedom “in the knowledge that one day we will be free.”

King’s campaigns against racial separation in the United States appealed to the East German government, Stefan Appelius, professor contemporary history at the University of Oldenburg, tells Lars Broder-Keil for his account of the visit in the blog site OZY. But King’s campaigns for peaceful protest were not pleasing. “This was something with which they could not relate.”

No man can speak for the dead, but it’s difficult to imagine that Martin Luther King would have joined the hysteria to make the heritage of the South, the veneration of Robert E. Lee, a scapegoat for crime and outrage. He had read history as well as theology, and knew of Lee’s saving the nation from guerrilla warfare after Appomattox.

He might even have been pleased by sharing a holiday with Lee, as Arkansas, Mississippi and Alabama have decreed, a symbol of the brotherhood of black and white that could put the bitterness and anger of division behind us for good.

Wesley Pruden is editor-in-chief emeritus of The Times.

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